On The Emotional Work Of Mommying

Talked with GOOD Magazine about motherhood’s emotional labor.

Goodbye To My Grandma Rock

(A Chinese translation of this is available below the English.)

My grandmother died early this morning, aged 94. She was so strong and full of grit that part of me believed she would never die.

When my mom called to tell me, she didn’t say grandma died, she said, “Grandma left.” As if grandma went out on an errand. But I knew what she meant.

My mother is 61 years old and a grandmother herself, four times over. But she said to me, her voice breaking, “It’s unimaginable navigating this world without a mother.”

Grandma lived in Taiwan, and I was born and raised in the U.S., so I didn’t really get to know her until I was a teenager and we traveled back and forth more often. My mom’s relationship with her mom is so deep that I remember sometime around first grade, feeling really envious of grandma. Who was this woman my mom loved so much? By the time I was old enough to understand, I only wanted to spend more time with Grandma Rock, the ultimate survivor. The kind of survivor that made me believe she’d never die.

Grandma’s surname is Shih, which literally translates to rock. And it’s fitting. She’s the oldest of six siblings, a well-known educator and later in life, one of Taiwan’s earliest female politicians.

She’s also two-times a war refugee — surviving the most devastating conflicts in recent Chinese history. When the Japanese invaded “Manchuria” in the Sino-Japanese War during WWII, she and her family were forced out of their home in Northeast China and migrated to central China. Decades later she had to flee again, many of her siblings in tow, during the brutal Chinese Civil War, when Mao’s communists defeated Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalists. She wound up in Taiwan until her death this morning.

She didn’t merely live. Grandma sucked the marrow out of life until the very end. She first worked as a teacher, but quickly became a principal and headmaster of the most elite women’s high schools in Taiwan. She was a working mom who never seemed to have any of our modern American angst about it. She had my aunt Linda, uncle Steve and her youngest, my momma, while also molding generations of young Taiwanese women at the schools she led. Those women have gone on to become artists and scientists and politicians and the brightest stars of Taiwan’s society. I remember visits to Taiwan and going out to eat with grandma in different cities. More often than not, we’d run into a former student who would recognize her and come by to say hello and thank you.

They recalled her being strict and exacting. I recall her being tough but warm, and how she found so many things delightful and humorous. She laughed with her whole body. One time when I was 12, we were in the backseat of a cab that was taking too long to get some place, and my externally sober grandma decided to show me her stupid human tricks to pass the time. Let’s just say she’s crazy flexible. She also showed me that you can do more than just roll your tongue in half — you can fold it three ways, like a flower. So now I too, can do this, if you ever want to see. (Apparently the ability to do this is genetic, so I guess grandma expected I’d be able to follow suit.)

While she expected excellence out of everyone, she reserved the toughest standards for herself. I have never seen her flub anything, especially when she spoke. When she came to my wedding in Amsterdam, she was 87 and still the sharpest one in the room. She spoke at the ceremony and at the reception in her native Mandarin Chinese. My friend Drew said afterward, “I couldn’t understand a word she said, but when Grandma speaks, we all know to shut up and listen!” She commanded the room like no one I’ve ever seen and probably will never see again.

The other thing I remember vividly about Grandma is her emphasis on (social and civic responsibility). She talked about it all the time. “Why’d you have three kids when you were so busy in your career?” .” “Hey, why’d you retire so late?” “.”

After she retired from her education career in Taichung — her final posting as principal was at a top all-girl’s high school there — my grandma continued breaking glass ceilings and served as one of the only women representatives to her political party’s national congress. “Why’d you get involved in the rough-and-tumble of politics when you could have just enjoyed yourself?” “.”

By the time she died, she was the matriarch of a huge extended family. She was a mother of three, grandmother to six and a great-grandmother to five. (Thanks to her side of the family, I have about 70 cousins and second cousins and we all kinda know each other.)

Despite her age, it was unexpected when I got the news of her passing because she had just come out of a scary gall bladder surgery a month ago and was doing really well. I video-chatted with her last week and she was looking and sounding great. She spent all day yesterday playing mahjong, which she has enjoyed in her final years, after she stopped all the international travel, yoga practice and ballroom dancing of her seventies and eighties.

My newborn Luna was going to meet her great-grandma Rock on Monday — we’ve had tickets to Taipei for weeks. We missed her by mere days. But grandma went in peace, at her home, and with my mom by her side. She knew the love of family, which is what she wished for us, especially after her own siblings were split up during China’s external and internal wars. She spoke about it often. So I’ll end this with what grandma said in her own words, from a speech she gave the family at a reunion in 2009:

“During China’s political turmoil our family was separated in an effort to flee to safety. Consequently, my siblings and I grew up during a very trying time where everyone was forced to fend for themselves. We lost contact with one another. Our biggest regret was not being able to enjoy the blessings of family warmth and sibling love.

Since we endured childhood loneliness without family, it is our wish that the future generations will see the value and enjoy the blessings of one another’s love and support. It is our hope the ties of our family love will be our legacy that is passed on to all future generations.”

With grandma and mom after I got hitched in Amsterdam, in 2010. She was 87!

You can read this in Chinese, after the jump.

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Here Are My Favorite Links On Motherhood

To mark Valentine’s Day, I dug into my Evernote (where I obsessively save links of interest) and found all the reads I’d tagged with “love.” For this Mother’s Day, I dove back in and cobbled together memorable links on motherhood, a topic that teaches, inspires and challenges me every moment. While I never grew up imagining my wedding/getting married, I always knew instinctively I’d be a mom.

As I write this, I’m surrounded by the singing, stomp-running and occasional screaming of three girls under the age of five, all who call me momma. My love for them is the deepest deep, and becoming a mom made me love my own mother — and need her — even more than I always had. When I was nursing eldest daughter Eva that first week of her life, my mom would stand over me with a bowl of soup and actually feed me as I was feeding my own baby, since my hands weren’t free. To my mom, my 30 year-old body was still her responsibility to nourish, just as I was doing for Eva. I recall so vividly a magical symmetry in the three of us together in those early days of Eva’s life.

Not all of us have kids, but we all have moms, so these links are for everyone.

We’re not so different from our own moms. “Because I’m so attached to her, I’m less attached to my own ego.” The conundrum of combining being an artist and being a mother. Tina Fey’s prayer for her daughter. On being a foreign correspondent and a mother. There’s no real safety net for working mothers. The worrying puritanism of progressive parents. Mothers are keepers of bodies. Becoming a new father, slowly. Getting pregnant is neither punishment nor reward. The only baby book you’ll need. Advice new moms gave me before I became one. The toll of pregnancy on a woman’s body, in one comic. Celebrate nannies and the network of people who care for your child. We have to stop thinking of work-life balance as a woman’s problem. Friend Kat remembers her late mom, by literally walking in her shoes. Thoughts on my back-to-back miscarriages. The black magic of being a mom, even for a moment. “I asked myself, ‘What am I going to lose by having a child?’ And so far the answer is nothing.” Letting go gets even harder when the children grow up.

With Isabel, in Okinawa, last year.

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Harper’s Bazaar Junior

That time we were in Harper’s Bazaar.

To be honest, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Harper’s Bazaar Junior, and I have some real reservations about haute couture for kids (because it’s really for the adults, isn’t it?). Anyway a writer reached out to me after finding me on Instagram and asked for some recommendations of places we like to take the kids to eat and play, in Seoul. Here’s my contribution, which features my go-to “Chicken Cauldron Place,” which as it turns out, has a real name.

 

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Just as it was in my own childhood, we make a point to sit down together for dinner as a family every night when I’m not traveling. (This family gathering happens at around 5:30pm, which means I often have first dinner and second dinner, because I eat again when I go out with friends.) Anyway, it’s been pretty funny lately because Eva gets impatient with listening to her dad and I blather on about things like American politics. So we started taking turns telling each other about what we did each day which ensures Eva gets a prominent role.

Eva loves her turn to talk about her day, and she’s added some flair to it. Sometimes she says, “First, I will start with a song” and proceed to sing an entire song before going through her day chronologically and fielding our questions about it. Last night, when it was Matty’s turn, he goes, “First, I will begin with a song.”

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Roger Gifs #4: Finger Lickin’ Good

I’m not sure what sort of Indonesian delight my brother Roger is eating here, but he seems to indicate to us that it was delicious.

Yum yum yum yum yum yum yum. Delicioso!

 

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“I miss the days where we would hit empty bubble tape cases wrapped with duct tape with hockey sticks against the garage, or go to the creek and catch the fish that were washed out of the creek during the heavy rains.”

–My brother Roger, feeling nostalgia for childhood now that he’s #adulting

The Egg Roll/Rolling Egg Tradition

Today is what my friend Anna calls “The Day After The Day Of The Shining Star,” because my birthday follows former North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il’s. (Kim’s birthday is the “Day of the Shining Star,” so I get “The Day After,” naturally. Along with Michael Jordan, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Paris Hilton and my birthday besties John and April.)

I can’t believe I’ve never written about my family’s birthday tradition! I guess now’s a good time. The tradition is the egg roll, or an egg rolling, to be precise. Not the fried appetizer, but an actual rolling of a hard-boiled egg down the birthday girl’s body, from head to toe and down each limb, to roll away any negativity or bad vibes from the year before. Then you crack open the egg and eat it for birthday breakfast.

Here’s my mom doing it for me in Taipei a couple years ago. While rolling the egg, the elder talks the whole time, wishing away all the sadness or badness. I always get emotional when I happen to be with my mom and she can actually roll the egg for me like when I was little.

In my adulthood, sometimes I’m not with mom or dad or grandma on my birthday, and so my husband has to roll the egg for me, which causes him great anxiety. On my 28th birthday, his egg-rolling-anxiety caused a GIANT FIGHT between us that lasted for two or three days.

There is a lot of superstition tied to egg rolling, too. On my 19th birthday, everyone forgot to roll my egg for me. It was then one of the worst years of my life, to this day. Before my 32nd birthday, I happened to be in Taipei a few weeks ahead of Feb 17 so my mom planned to roll my egg for me before I headed to the airport. But the eggs didn’t boil in time, so we had to go downstairs to the 7-11 and improvise with a tea-egg (the shells of which are already cracked, since they’re braising in tea). Mom rolled me with the tea egg, but tea eggs don’t work! I went home and had a miscarriage and my au pair quit in some high drama involving her OK Cupid boyfriend and it was just Not. A. Great. Start. To. My. Year. So my dad came to DC and re-rolled my egg, and instantly things turned a corner.

That is the power of the egg roll.

If I’m REALLY lucky, I happen to be with my 94-year old grandma around my birthday, and SHE can do the egg roll, which is the luckiest egg roll of all. But her primary egg roll responsibilities are her own kids: Aunt Linda, Uncle Steve and my momma.

This year Matty had my egg ready for rolling first thing in the morning, and my daughter Eva was so psyched to see this weird thing happening that she insisted on being lifted up so she, too, could help roll the egg. Later my Seoul girlfriends joined me for a day at the spa, since I’m a little limited in my partying this year due to being eight-months preggo. Buy my sweet friend Sarah flew her ass in from Singapore to spend the day and weekend with me, which means a whole lot. I missed our times together and we’re doing some quality catching-up.

NOTE: I have no idea where this tradition comes from. It’s just been passed down my mom’s side of the family. I have yet to start doing it for my daughters, but I think I will this fall when Eva turns five.

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Our 4 year-old brought home a library book called I Love My Dad and, anticipating my reaction, promptly says to me, “I’m sorry, I can only bring home one book a week.”

(Next week if I Love My Mom doesn’t come home on library day I’m just going to play it cool, I tell myself.)

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